The Gothic style lingered in Germany long after it had given way, in Italy and France, to the classic influences of the Renaissance. Now it crowned the thriving cities of Central Europe with churches not as overpowering in grandeur as the great shrines of France, yet lifting the spirit with a quiet beauty and unpretentious dignity. Uppsala began its cathedral in 1287, Saxon Freiberg in 1283, Ulm in 1377 (with the highest Gothic tower in the world), Vienna its Stefansdom in 1304, Stralsund its Marienkirche in 1382, Danzig another Marienkirche in 1425. Aachen and Cologne added the choirs of their cathedrals, Strasbourg completed the “frozen music” of its cathedral in 1439; Xanten built a graceful Collegiate Church of St. Victor, which was destroyed in the second World War. Nuremberg gloried in four famous churches that gave piety a schooling in art and taste. The Lorenzkirche (1278–1477) owed to the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries its stately portal and resplendent rose. The Stefansdom, or Cathedral of St. Stephen (1304–1476), was a beloved landmark; its steep roof covered nave and aisles in a single span, and fell to Mars in 1945. About 1309 the Sebalduskirche rebuilt its aisles; in 1361 it raised a new choir; about 1498 it completed its western towers; from 1360 to 1510 it installed magnificent stained glass. The Frauenkirche, or Church of Our Lady (1355–61), with its richly sculptured vestibule, was almost demolished in the second World War, but is already restored; and every day at noon the four manikin electors in the famous clock of the façade bow to Charles IV in untiring acknowledgment of his famous Bull. Sculpture was still crude, but churches in Breslau and Hallgarten, and the Sebalduskirche in Nuremberg, received stone or wood Madonnas of some nobility.
The cities beautified not only their churches but their public buildings, their shops, and their homes. Now rose those gabled and half-timbered houses that give the German towns a wistful medieval charm for idealizing modern eyes. The Rathaus, or Council Hall, was the center of civic life, sometimes also the rendezvous of the greater guilds; its walls might bear frescoes, and its woodwork was usually carved with Teutonic fullness and strength. The Grosse Saal of the Rathaus at Bremen (1410–50) had a ceiling of carved beams, a winding staircase with posts and railing of carved wood, and gaudy chandeliers in the shape of ships. The Rathaus of Cologne (1360–1571), which had seated the first general convocation of the Hanseatic League; of Münster (1335), where the Treaty of Westphalia was signed; of Brunswick, a fourteenth-century gem of civic Gothic; of Frankfurt-am-Main (1405), where the electors dined a newly chosen emperor: all were destroyed in the second World War. In Marienburg the Grand Masters of the Teutonic Order built their massive Deutschordenschloss (1309–80). In Nuremberg the Rathaus confronted the Sebalduskirche; it was built (1340) to hold the fully assembled Reichstag of the Empire; half a dozen restorations have left little of its medieval form. In the market place before the Frauenkirche a Prague sculptor, Heinrich Parler, raised the Schöner Brunnen, or Beautiful Fountain (1361 f.), crowded with statues of pagan, Jewish, and Christian heroes. With its sculptures, churches, and secular architecture Nuremberg, in the three centuries between 1250 and 1550, represented the German spirit at its highest and best. The meandering streets were mostly narrow and unpaved; yet the future Pope Pius II wrote of Nuremberg:
When one comes from Lower Franconia and perceives this glorious city, its splendor seems truly magnificent. Entering it, one’s original impression is confirmed by the beauty of the streets and the fitness of the houses. The churches... are worthy of worship as well as of admiration. The imperial castle proudly dominates the town, and the burghers’ dwellings seem to have been built for princes. In truth the kings of Scotland would gladly be housed so luxuriously as the common citizen of Nuremberg.24
In the German cities the industrial and minor arts—in wood, ivory, copper, bronze, iron, silver, gold—reached now the full ripening of their medieval growth. Artists and weavers composed amazing tapestries; the wood engravers prepared for Dürer and Holbein; the miniaturists illuminated fine manuscripts on the eve of Gutenberg; woodworkers carved gorgeous furniture; and the metal founders cast for the churches, in the fifteenth century, bells whose beauty of tone has never been surpassed. Music was not merely an art; it was half the leisure life of the towns. Nuremberg and other cities staged great carnivals of popular drama and song. The Volkslied expressed the pious or amorous sentiments of the people. The middle classes made a mass attack upon the problems of polyphony; the guilds competed in gigantic choruses; butchers, tanners, bell casters, and other mighty men contested the Meistersinger prize in tumultuous vocal tournaments. The first famous school of Meistersinger was established at Mainz in 1311; others rose at Strasbourg, Frankfurt-am-Main, Würzburg, Zurich, Augsburg, Nuremberg, and Prague. Students who passed through the four degrees of Schüler, Schulfreund, Dichter, and Saenger (scholar, friend of the school, poet, and singer) earned the title of Meister. The romantic and idealistic strain of the minnesingers was brought to earth as the German burghers tied their lusty realism to the wings of song.
Since the business class dominated the cities, all the arts except church architecture took a realistic turn. The climate was cold and often wet, discouraging nudity; the pride and cult of the body did not find a congenial home here as in Renaissance Italy or ancient Greece. When Konrad Witz of Constance painted Solomon and the Queen of Sheba he dressed them as if for a winter in the Alps. A dozen cities, however, had schools of painting in the fifteenth century—Ulm, Salzburg, Würzburg, Frankfurt, Augsburg, Munich, Darmstadt, Basel, Aachen, Nuremberg, Hamburg, Colmar, Cologne; and samples survive from all of them. We read in a chronicle of 1380: “There was in Cologne at this time a famous painter named Wilhelm, whose like could not be found in all the land. He portrayed men so cunningly that it seemed they were alive.”25 Meister Wilhelm was one of many “primitives”—Meister Bertram, Meister Francke, The Master of St. Veronica, The Master of the Heisterbacher Altar—who, chiefly under Flemish influence, created a discipline of mural painting in Germany, and suffused the traditional Gospel themes with an emotional piety traceable, it may be, to Eckhart and the other German mystics.
In Stephen Lochner, who died at Cologne in 1451, this preliminary development ends, and we reach the zenith of the early school. His Adoration of the Magi, now a prize of the Cologne Cathedral, can bear comparison with most paintings produced before the middle of the fifteenth century: a lovely Virgin at once modest and proud, a delightful Infant, the Wise Men of the East very German but credibly wise, the composition orthodox, the coloring bright with blue and green and gold. In The Virgin of the Rose TrellisandThe Madonna of the Violet, ideal young German mothers, of a soft and pensive beauty, are portrayed with all the technical resources of a medieval art visibly moving toward modernity. Germany was on the threshold of its greatest age.